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Source: fastcompany.com, May 2019

The Atlanta suburb of Clarkston is about to undertake an experiment in smaller living, with a development of 250- to 500-square-foot houses that cost less than half the average home in the area.

On an overgrown vacant lot in the small city of Clarkston, Georgia, a short drive from Atlanta, a new community of eight tiny homes will sit on a half acre that once held one single-family house. “There’s very little available land to build new housing,” says Ted Terry, the city’s mayor, explaining that Clarkston was originally a farming town filled with apartment complexes as Atlanta sprawled closer over time. “We said that the most practical thing to do is to make the most use of the little that we have available.”

The city plans to rewrite zoning to allow for taller apartment complexes downtown. But it also began working with MicroLife Institute, the Atlanta-based nonprofit developing the project, a couple of years ago. The nonprofit, which promotes small-space living in walkable neighborhoods, worked to help the city change its zoning code to make a tiny home community possible. “As a smaller city, they were able to act very quickly,” says Kim Bucciero, CFO of MicroLife Institute. After passing the ordinance in 2017, the city approved the plans for the development this month. The homes will go up for presale this summer, and the neighborhood should be completed by the end of the year.

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The houses range from around 250 to 500 square feet–compared to around 2,400 square feet for a typical new American house–and are expected to cost between $100,000 and $125,000. The average house in the county goes for around $285,000; Clarkston, which has a large refugee population, is more affordable than some nearby communities, but most houses in the city are still much more expensive than the new tiny homes. The median home value in Clarkston has increased 158% since 2012, according to data from Zillow.

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While tiny houses may conjure up millennial stereotypes, “we are building for everyone,” says Will Johnston, executive director of the MicroLife Institute. “People keep putting what we do in a box and saying, ‘Oh, it’s just for a certain demographic,’ and it’s not. Our research has shown that we have everyone from 18 to 85 interested. Every race, every income class.”

“If you are looking for a starter home as a recent college graduate with $50,000 in debt or if you’re a retiree who doesn’t want a big home anymore and you want to downsize, these options aren’t available,” says Terry. “Or if you’re any renter who can’t afford the rent that keeps going higher and higher every year–including in Clarkston–then the mortgage of the house is much more affordable than the rental prices.”

The community follows the “pocket neighborhood” model popularized by architect Ross Chapin in communities in the Pacific Northwest and will be the first of its kind in Georgia. Each house faces a central shared courtyard with a firepit and room to garden. The design of the area, along with the limited space inside the houses, is designed to encourage people to spend time outside with neighbors. “So many people are ready to know the neighbors and be involved in their community a lot more than the McMansion suburbia where we just spend all the time in our private backyards,” Johnston says. The homes have front porches, and a community garden will be split in front of different homes, so if you want, say, raspberries, you’ll walk in front of a neighbor’s house. For introverts, all but one of the houses also have private yards in back.

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The small size has environmental advantages over a standard house, including the amount of energy used for heating and cooling and the amount of materials used in construction. “You also have less space for stuff, so there’s less consumption,” says Bucciero. The development will also be next to a new pedestrian corridor, under development now, that leads to a bike trail that connects to the BeltLine bike trail in Atlanta–so some residents could theoretically bike to work.

There are other lots in the city where similar projects could happen, Bucciero says. The organization plans to help make it easier for other cities to follow. (Other mayors, Terry says, have been skeptical of the idea–equating it at first with trailer parks–but he believes that when they see the completed development, they’ll be convinced that it could make sense elsewhere.) MicroLife Institute is currently also planning a similar development in another Atlanta suburb called East Point. The biggest challenge in most cities will be zoning, since cities often don’t yet have the zoning in place to make these projects possible. But that can change with new ordinances like the one adopted in Clarkston. “If we have painted ourselves into a corner, we can paint ourselves out,” says Johnston. “It’s a new day in zoning.”


Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world’s largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.